Telstra Nighthawk M1 Review: The need for speed

Alex Kidman 21 April 2017 NEWS
Quick Verdict
Telstra has shifted its mobile hotspot portfolio markedly since the introduction of the Nighthawk M1, depending on your desire for a contract or prepaid device.

Strengths

  • Huge speed potential
  • Exceptional battery life
  • Media server capabilities
  • Doubles as a battery pack
  • Share to up to 20 devices

Could be better

  • Very bulky
  • Ordinary real world speeds
  • Inevitable wireless drop in speed
  • Faster data equals higher mobile bills

Telstra’s Nighthawk M1 doesn’t quite live up to its lofty speed promises, but it’s still an incredibly capable hotspot device.

We first went hands-on with Telstra’s Nighthawk M1 some months ago at the device’s official launch, where Telstra was keen to show off its extreme speed chops. It’s powered by Qualcomm’s x16 LTE modem, giving it the potential speed chops to burn through up to 1Gbps of data under the ideal conditions.

Telstra Nighthawk M1

Telstra Nighthawk M1 from Telstra Smart Home deals

Australia's fastest mobile hotspot. Connect in more places today.

View details

Even Telstra itself was quick to point out that while that was the top speed theoretically possible, users should instead expect between 5-300Mbps in real world usage. Telstra’s demonstrations of the M1 were encouraging, but the only way to really test out a product like this is to see how it performs in the real world. Not only in the immediate period following its release when few users would be pushing the capabilities of Telstra’s gigabit-capable network, but for an extended period throughout different locations.

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Telstra Nighthawk M1: Design

While it has had a few lower-cost ZTE hotspots on its books over the years, Telstra’s primary producer of hotspots in the premium space has long been Netgear, and the Nighthawk M1 is most definitively a Netgear product. That’s not to say that it looks like any Netgear hotspot that preceded it.

Out is the smaller almost-zippo-lighter sized hotspot of old in favour of something that most closely resembles the newer Apple TV in size. It measures in at 105.5x105.5x20.35mm, which means that unless you’re still rocking Hammer pants you’re not going to be able to easily slip it into your pocket without some discomfort. Believe me, I tried just that with the M1 and a pair of jeans, and it wasn’t pretty.

That larger design has allowed Netgear to equip the Nighthawk M1 with a 2.4 inch colour LCD display panel. In an era of 6+ inch smartphones that might not seem like such a big detail, but when you consider the tiny monochrome displays that used to grace its routers, it’s a big step forward in easy legibility for incoming messages or if you want to quickly share your SSID password without having to announce it to a room. The Nighthawk M1 also incorporates simple visual levels on each side of the display to show your usage and battery life at a glance, which is very handy.

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Telstra Nighthawk M1: Why you’d want one

  • It’s incredibly fast: This is naturally the Nighthawk M1’s key selling point. In one single test Telstra was able to demonstrate speedtest download speeds peaking at 900Mbps with uploads hitting over 100Mbps. That’s well and above anything in the market by a significant factor. Telstra demonstrated this with comparative file transfers from a CAT6 device, where the Nighthawk M1 was easily the victor, as well as multiple simultaneous 4K VR streams to Google Pixel XL phones. In essence, it’s a gateway product to Telstra’s 5G future.
  • Exceptional battery life: Being able to connect quickly is great, but not if the battery conks out after only a short run at, say, 4K video streaming. The larger size of the Nighthawk M1 allows it to fit a 5040mAh battery that gives it exceptional battery stamina. Netgear’s claim is that it’s suitable for "all day" battery life is an entirely feasible one, but what this also means is that if you do use the Nighthawk M1 as a purely in-transit hotspot between office and home that you can run it for multiple days without fussing about a recharge.
  • Media server capabilities: The Nighthawk M1 is primarily sold as a hotspot for Internet connectivity, but it’s also a fully capable router, and that includes acting as a tiny NAS via its microSD or USB ports. That could cover anything from media serving to simple file sharing via its 2.4 GHz WiFi 802.11 b/g/n or 5Ghz WiFi 802.11a/n/ac networks.
  • Doubles as a battery pack: While the integrated 5040mAh battery gives the Nighthawk M1 plenty of battery life by itself as a hotspot, it’s perfectly content to share its power with others via the integrated USB port. If you’re using a phone that consistently dies out by the end of the day, this could be a godsend.
  • Share to up to 20 devices: The Nighthawk M1 supports Wi-Fi access to up to 20 devices at once. That’s going to slice its available bandwidth up rather thinly, but if you’re after a device to run a larger number of devices, this could be quite handy.

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Telstra Nighthawk M1: Why you might not want one

  • Very bulky: The Nighthawk M1 is like no mobile router that has come before it, but that includes its relatively immense size. Where previous hotspots could easily slip into a pocket, the Nighthawk M1 is far better suited to slip into a bag or purse, which significantly limits its portability.
  • Ordinary real world speeds: The hook for the Nighthawk M1 is that it combines multiple frequencies to push out its data quite so rapidly. That should lead to much faster download speeds if you’re within a gigabit enabled area, and, as per Telstra, even improved reception in slightly shakier non-gigabit regions. We’ve tested the Nighthawk M1 all across the greater Sydney region, and we’ve got to say that we can’t quite see this in action outside Telstra's labs. In areas with poor Telstra reception the Nighthawk M1 was no better or worse than any other connection we could manage on the same network. In supposedly good areas we generally topped out at around 50Mbps on average. That’s nothing to sneeze at and probably good enough for your needs, but it’s only a fraction even of Telstra’s own up-to-300Mbps claims.
  • Inevitable wireless drop in speed: Wireless data transmission is necessarily lossy. It’s the nature of radio waves and the relationship between signal and noise, but what this means for any mobile hotspot is that you’ll lose some data quality along the way. To test this, we pitted the Nighthawk M1 against the Samsung Galaxy S8, which uses the exact same Qualcomm x16 LTE modem within it. The location for testing was Sydney’s Hyde Park, having been advised by Telstra that this was a good reception area for gigabit-quality mobile data. Here’s how the two devices compared across five test locations within Hyde park, connecting to the same speedtest.net server in every instance:
    Speedtest.net download results (Mbps)
    Device Telstra Nighthawk M1 Samsung Galaxy S8
    Hyde Park Location 1 14.5 34.32
    Hyde Park Location 2 15.8 52.96
    Hyde Park Location 3 34.67 54.19
    Hyde Park Location 4 30.46 40.25
    Hyde Park Location 5 36.43 134.25

    In every single test the Galaxy S8 outpaced the Nighthawk M1, sometimes by a considerable margin. If you’re able to connect the M1 via Ethernet to a laptop this does reduce markedly as you’d expect. Still if your interest is in raw speed, you’re inevitably going to lose some along the way.

  • Faster data equals higher mobile bills: It’s an inevitability that if you can access mobile data more rapidly, you’ll burn through your quota more quickly. Our real world tests do show that you’re not going to do your entire quota over in seconds because you won’t hit top speed all the time, you’re still going to have to watch the integrated usage meter carefully to avoid blowing out your mobile data budget.

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Who is it best suited for? What are my alternatives?

Mobile hotspot products are arguably the best match for business users who need that kind of continuity of data. The practical reality for many consumers will be that it’s simpler and easier to just set up your existing smartphone as an ad-hoc hotspot as needs require rather than running a separate hotspot device.

Telstra has shifted its mobile hotspot portfolio markedly since the introduction of the Nighthawk M1, depending on your desire for a contract or prepaid device. On the contract side of the broadband fence the Nighthawk M1 is your only choice aside from the USB-connected Telstra 4GX USB + Wi-Fi Plus if you prefer creating a hotspot from the side of your laptop.

Telstra Nighthawk M1

Telstra Nighthawk M1 from Telstra Smart Home deals

Australia's fastest mobile hotspot. Connect in more places today.

View details

The Nighthawk M1 can be purchased outright if you prefer and matched with a prepaid data plan, and in the prepaid space Telstra offers a $79 Telstra Pre Paid 4GX Wi-Fi with Car Kit, $99 Telstra Pre-Paid 4GX Wi-Fi Plus With Battery or $109 Telstra Pre Paid 4GX Wi-Fi Pro to compete with the Nighthawk M1. None of those devices have the battery heft or 1Gbps technical capability of the Nighthawk M1, but if all you want is basic mobile data connectivity using Telstra’s 4GX network, they should do the trick.

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Where can I get it?

The Telstra Nighthawk M1 is available to purchase outright for $360 or on a range of Telstra Mobile Broadband plans over 24 months. Here’s how Telstra’s different Nighthawk M1 plans compare:

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Telstra Nighthawk M1: Specifications

Telstra Nighthawk M1
Connectivity 1Gbps download, 150Mbps upload LTE CAT 16 4-band CA and 4x4 MIMO
Frequencies LTE/4GX 700/900/1800/2100/2600 MHz 3G 850/900/1900/2100 MHz
Wi-Fi Full Dual-Band/Dual-Concurrent Wi-Fi Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n 2.4Ghz 802.11a/n/ac 5Ghz
Ports Ethernet, USB A, USB C, microSD, TS-9 antenna connector (x2)
Battery 5040mAh removable
Display 2.4in LCD
Size 105.5 (L) x 105.5 (W) x 20.35 (H) mm
Weight 240 g (with battery)
RRP $360 or on contract

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